The dugout was tight, with jaws locked in the anticipation of pending doom. The relief pitching, the achilies of this season’s team, had just allowed three runs to put the Brewers behind 7-4 going into the 8th after leading 4-0. On the road, you don’t get the push from the home crowd, propelling you to the thrill of a rally to keep pennant hopes alive. From an improbable position of mediocrity, this Milwaukee team has been on a quest, since the All-Star break to do what no other team has done before…come back from 7 games below .500 and get a coveted Wild Card playoff spot.
The top of the 8th inning began like so many others had this year. Someone gets on and then another. Then up comes Nori Aoki to the plate. What is he going to do this time? Hammer it deep as he has been doing so many times during the later part of this season or will he lay down a bunt and fill the bases for the big boys that follow? #7 promptly slammed a double off the wall to drive in one run. Rickie Weeks (#23) followed and hammered a triple to left center to tie the score. Aramis Ramirez then delivered a single up the middle to drive in the go-ahead run and Milwaukee led, in an attempt to sweep the Pirates and move onto Washington for another series that would have its fans on the edge of their seats, wondering if the Boys from the Cream City could accomplish the impossible.
The trip this team has taken during the past three months has been remarkable and it has been led by the top of their order, Aoki and Weeks. Aoki has had four different 10+ game hitting streaks this season and is one of the reasons for the Brewers performance. As the lead off hitter, he has gotten on base 35.9% of the time. Hitting near .300, this six time batting champion in Japan really is the ‘hitting machine’ so many talked about earlier this spring when Milwaukee was looking for someone to fill an outfield position. He had to come over to Maryville, AZ, the site of the Brewers spring training facility, and basically give an audition, like a musician trying to gain a spot in a major orchestra, in front of the Milwaukee brass to see what he could do. It’s little wonder that what they saw caused disbelief. Here was a master of the art of hitting, much like his hero, Ichiro. The entire field was his potential hitting target. Very few balls got by him at bat. When it came to having two strikes him, he got tougher at the plate. His impressive style, a bit strange for the fans of Miller Park, gave his manager the confidence to note aloud that he would be the team’s leading pinch hitter off the bench against left handed pitchers. Here was a left handed hitter who could pull off the art of being better than a right handed hitter when it came to hitting off of a left handed pitcher, a total alien view by baseball purists. But a pinch hitter? Here was a star of Japanese baseball, attempting to break into the Major Leagues and not being able to show his full potential as an every day player. In any language that had to be humbling.
As the season progressed, the Brewers found that Aoki was an exceptional fielder as well. The corners of their outfield was set for many seasons to come. Along with Braun in left, this team would have two .300 hitters at the corners.
Which brings us to Weeks. No player was hitting better than #23 was in 2011 when he earned an All-Star spot. But then came a near season ending injury when he stepped awkwardly on the first base bag trying to beat out a throw. He left a huge hole in the lineup and then came back too early in an attempt to contribute to a pennant drive. But Rickie was clearly under par. When this season began, Weeks could barely hit above his weight and struggled through the entire first half of the season. Credit the manager for keeping him in the lineup.
Then somewhere he found his stroke. During the last half of the season, he is hitting as well as he ever did. Batting behind Aoki, it gives the Brewers one of the most intimidating group of hitters deep into the entire order.
While Braun and Ramirez are the core of the power of the Milwaukee club, Aoki and Weeks are the table setters and are as good as any top of the order players in the Show.
The Brewers swept the Pirates with a 9-7 victory for their 24th victory in their last 28 games.
Then onto Washington to take on the top team in the National League. With 13 games to go, they were two games behind Cardinals for the final Wild Card spot. All they have to do is keep winning. To do that, #7 & #23 had to continue to do what they have been doing during this amazing stretch. In the 9th, they did exactly what you would expect from this team. Aoki got on, stole second and in a flurry of hits, the Crew took a 4-2 lead while Axford closed it out for their 26th victory in their last 30 games.
On Saturday, while Aoki threw out a runner at home plate, the team decided to take the day off as the Nationals tied up the series as rookie starter Wily Peralta just didn’t have it and Livan Hernandez daydreamed through an improbable fourth inning.
Now, with 11 games to go and the Brewers two games behind the Cardinals for the last Wild Card playoff spot, the game really begins. Hold onto your hats, sports fans. If they are to do it, Aoki and Weeks, #7 & #23 will show the way.